A Study in Scarlet (1933)


A Study in Scarlet. K.B.S. Productions 1933.

Before watching the movie:

A Study in Scarlet is, as the first Holmes story, important, but is also very unlike most other stories, in that half the book completely departs from Watson’s narrative and instead lays down motive. From another point of view, Holmes’s investigation sets up a half-novel romance on the American frontier. I’m interested in seeing how adaptations handle this oddity, though in most cases they handle it by ignoring the second part. On the one hand, it doesn’t have Holmes in it, which is the draw, but on the other, it’s the more cinematic part of the story. I have a sneaking suspicion this movie will dip into it more than most.

After watching the movie:

When James Murphy is found dead, apparently by his own hand, his will bequeaths all of his money to his criminal fraternity and none to his widow, who goes to Sherlock Holmes to see if he can find claim to his money for her. As Holmes takes the case, he soon uncovers the Scarlet Ring Society, who all conduct their legal affairs through a man named Merrydew, all have history in China, and all have a rapidly decreasing life expectancy due to a series of murders winnowing their number.

Or it could completely ignore the book, thanks to a very restrictive license agreement. Because one of the characters is named Jabez Wilson, I expected that eventually something familiar from the book to turn up, but eventually I remembered that Wilson is from The Red-Headed League. I thought that the China connection might have been a displacement of the American connection, but it ends up simply being an excuse to throw around variously painful degrees of Orientalism. On the one end, Anna May Wong as Captain Pyke’s Chinese widow, who is pretty much a high society wife who happens to be of Chinese origin, and on the other end, Japanese actor Tetsu Komai wearing atrocious yellowface as the opium-sated Ah Yet.

The plot is essentially a Tontine serial murder. As an old plunder is about to be finally liquidated, a member of the gang is killing off the others to get their shares. It’s disappointing that the story didn’t even salvage the most interesting bits of the murder cases from the book. Instead, the most notable clue is taunts using the same nursery rhyme Agatha Christie would use to tell a much better version of the story a few years later.

I do think Reginald Owen is putting his best in as Holmes, or close to it. His physical appearance is just so unlike the Holmes type that occasionally halfway through a scene I’d realize “oh right, that guy is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes.” He looks more like a businessman than a gentleman dedicated to intellectual pursuits. I have no objection to Warburton Gamble’s Watson, but nothing particularly stood out either.

Though some small details get quoted here and there, there’s so little proper Sherlock Holmes going on in this movie my first thought is “why bother?” And of course the answer is “It made money, didn’t it?” Elementary.

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